Well, call me your psychic friend. Tennessee is indeed in the business of deciding which Christians are the right ones. As of right now, Methodists are a little more right than Presbyterians in the state's eyes.
Memphis mom Lauren Jarrell is facing jail time for baptizing her kids. Even though she and her ex-husband Blake Jarell are both Christian — she's Presbyterian and he's Methodist — and even though her ex-husband doesn't seem to understand the basic practices of the Methodist church, she's still in trouble for having their children baptized when he didn't want them to be.
Here are the issues:
• Tennessee state law (36-6-404) says the courts will decide in divorce cases which parent is responsible for a child's religious upbringing. In the Jarrells' case, both parties have to agree to the children's upbringing.
• Blake Jarrell may be a member of the United Methodist Church, but his position on baptism — that the children should wait until they're old enough to decide if they want to be baptized — is not in line with United Methodist practice. While it's true that Methodists will baptize anyone who wants to be baptized at any age, usually Methodists practice infant baptism on their own children. Confirmation is the rite when the person literally "confirms" that he or she is accepting the baptism and his or her place in the church community.
• Presbyterians also practice infant baptism, so it makes sense that Lauren Jarrell would want her children baptized. That is not only the tradition of her denomination, it's also the tradition of her ex-husband's. There are theological reasons for the belief in the desirability of infant baptism. I won't get into them in depth here, but in churches that practice infant baptism, it's not a matter of taking the choice to be Christian away from someone, but affirming that the child is under the protection of God and under the spiritual care of the church, and that there is a place for him or her in the Christian community when he or she is ready for it. It's that component of making sure that a child has a community of people watching out for his or her spiritual welfare that makes the issue so compelling to people who believe it is important.
"Mother is correct that courts 'must maintain strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents' and they may not 'prefer the religious views of one parent over another unless one parent's religious beliefs and practices threaten the health and well-being of the child," Judge Alan E. Highers wrote. "However, simply put, this is not a religious dispute." Highers said the court is only being asked to determine whether the mother can be found in contempt for failing to follow the court order.
But come on! Of course it's a religious issue. She baptized her kids when her ex-husband didn't want her to and now you're saying that's an action worth jail time.
And frankly, the courts ought to be glad that she did, because otherwise, they'd have had to rule on the legitimacy of infant baptism and whether her desire for the spiritual welfare of her children outweighs his desire for the kids to be able to make up their own minds later. Do the courts really want to be weighing in on an issue that has divided the Protestant community since, basically, the Reformation?
I've said it once and I'll say it again. Christianity is not a monolith. But the vast majority of people in Tennessee are Christians. Those two facts mean that all this legislation dealing with religious issues, which most Tennesseans think is just going to apply to the scary Muslims or people who are divorcing their spooky pagan spouses, is going to apply much more often to folks like y'all.
And so here we are. Tennessee. A state so proud of its Christian heritage where a woman is looking at jail time for baptizing her kids.
Maybe that whole separation of church and state stuff isn't so bad after all?